Is art school worthless?

October 6th, 2006

If you want to be a scientist, you really should study at a university and get a Ph.D. If you want to be a doctor, you should go to medical school. But if you want to be an artist, will art school help you?

Only about half of the successful artists I know went to art school; furthermore, of those who did go to art school, their formal education seems only incidental to their success. What do you think? Is art school a good investment?

In the Renaissance, an artist apprentice received training from a master by working on the master’s projects. In the most important art how-to book of all time, Cennino Cennini wrote “submit yourself to the direction of a master for instruction as early as you can; and do not leave the master until you have to.” The master had a strong incentive to teach, because good assistants were essential for fulfilling a major commission. Teaching was thus not separate from the master’s own creative work. Instead, it was critical to the productive success of the studio. The result was that apprentice and master collaborated in the process of artistic discovery.

A related method is used for teaching at the highest levels of education today. For example, a graduate student in biology will do research in a specific laboratory, under guidance of a recognized scientist. Only a small part of the student’s education comes through classroom teaching. The scientist has a strong incentive to teach the craft of working in the laboratory to a select group of students, because a group effort is necessary for major research projects. When scientists complain about the burdens of teaching, they are referring to teaching in the classroom. Good scientists know that teaching in the laboratory is essential to success in research. Graduate students thus learn to be scientists in the laboratory, collaborating in the process of discovery.

Art education today is a different story. Artists get paid to do “classroom” teaching at art school. But teaching in this mode does not contribute directly to the artist’s own work. Instead, it becomes an impediment. In art, professors and students do not generally collaborate in the process of creation and discovery in the same meaningful sense as they do in science. The reason probably has to do with our modern notions of artist: the artist (and therefore, the art professor) is supposed to be a loner in the process of creation. Scientists are not burdened with this notion, any more than were artists of the past (which is to say, of course the issue of credit is important, but it is not debilitating to the field).

I did not go to art school, but I had a valuable art education in my high school with one of the most remarkable art teachers in America — Walter Bartman. In his classroom, and on frequent painting excursions, there was an exhilarating sense of collaborating in a process of discovery.

. . .

19 Responses to “Is art school worthless?”

  1. Power is Given by Power being Taken Says:

    I am an art school drop out. I thought that I could make it in the industry by finding someone to train or learn from one on one.

    Unfortunately, this is much harder than I expected. I’m not sure of a lot of things and definitely seek help for a direction. If there is anything that you can recommend to helping someone in my situation get started, please advise.

    Thank you,

  2. Karl Zipser Says:

    Hi Courtney,

    You raise an important point — outside of art school, it is difficult to find a teacher to learn from one-on-one. This is a fact of life today. Here are four comments/suggestions:

    1. Most of the artists that I know who are successful (and by that I mean that they can make living from their art, or almost can do so) had to figure things out on their own — and that includes the art school graduates.

    2. If you feel that you have the talent to be an artist, the most important thing is to continue to believe in yourself. A key part of this is to continue to provide evidence to yourself that your art is valuable — that is, keep making work that you find good. Even if you need to do a different day job, don’t stop with your art. Otherwise, give up on art and do something different (almost every other job is easier, from an economic standpoint).

    3. Read about art techniques. Max Doerner, Ralph Mayer, and of course, Cennino Cennini are great. All dead, but great nonetheless.

    4. Try to maintain contacts with other artists who inspire you, even if you don’t work together. A community can be valuable in maintaining inspiration. But I also suggest that you choose your community with care. Trying to take in the whole art world can destroy inspiration.

    And of course, stay tuned for the interview with Walter Bartman . . .

  3. Karl Zipser Says:

    Here is another art school drop-out. He went to art school in The Hague for one year before going off on his own, very successfully.

  4. Bob Says:

    Hi Karl,
    This is a great discussion! I am on the board of a non-profit
    Art School and the thinking is that we are performing an
    important role for both artist and student. Some times both (artist and
    student) come away feeling less then fulfilled and this is always
    troubling. Art Schools can be one of many important steps in learning
    as long as its not treated it’s “The Way” because
    the student will most times come away feeling disapointed. There are no magic pills, just hard work which sooner or later you have do on your
    own. Bob

  5. Karl Zipser Says:


    I compare teaching in science versus art. Do you think I characterize the interaction of student and teacher fairly, with respect to “laboratory” teaching versus “classroom” teaching? As I say, I have not been to art school . . .

  6. Tracy Helgeson Says:

    Hi Karl, I found my art school experience to be invaluable to my development as an artist. I had the opportunity to learn a wide variety of technical skills and to learn, get feedback from so many different kinds of artists and receive guidance as I developed my own style. The near total immersion in art was also important to me at that time and is something that it is difficult to experience in another environment.

  7. Karl Zipser Says:

    Tracy, thanks for your comment. Now that you are finished with art school, how do you maintain the positive creative environment that you experienced there?

  8. Tracy Helgeson Says:

    Well, it can be a struggle. I have never really lived in a town or area where the arts have much respect, but I have always managed to find the art niche. I have volunteered at community art centers, continued with figure drawing classes, and I attend gallery events as much as possible. The internet has been a great help and writing a blog has really helped me in finding a supportive art community even if it isn’t local.Books, magazines. those things help too. Plus my husband is an artist so we have many conversations about art. It’s probably a good balance at this point in my life, as I have a more well rounded lifestyle than I did in college, but still I miss those days when everything was all about art somehow.

  9. David Says:

    Hi Karl, this is an interesting question you’ve posted. I’d have to say that my feelings are mixed on the subject.

    I’ve been drawing and painting continuously since I was a kid, so by the time I got to college I had pretty good (self-taught) technical skills. I did learn quite a bit by being immersed in art study with other students, studying art history, etc. And I loved being in college. But unfortunately, when I got out of art school I had no more idea of how to make a living at it than I did when I entered. The same goes for graduate school, which I attended with the idea of improving my art practice and becoming qualified to teach college (I thought it would help support my painting). Unfortunately, when I graduated there were no teaching jobs, and I still had no idea how to make a living as an artist.

    One problem, I think, is that the art world has changed dramatically since Cennini’s time. When he wrote his book, there was a pretty clear idea of what skills were needed to be an artist, and if you had those skills you could make a living with them. Also, when you were an apprentice you were making a living at that, not building up student debt. At this point it’s anybody’s guess what you need to know to support yourself as an artist, but it’s clear to just about any student that it has less to do with skill than with connections and marketing.

    For myself, I’ve more or less worked out a way to survive and keep making art. A number of years ago I taught myself Photoshop and some other graphics programs, and with those and my painting skills was able to get work doing digital effects for movies. I work 50 hours a week making other people’s movies (currently Spiderman 3), and then I leave at the end of the day and go to my studio. I continue to have shows, and sell enough to pay some of my expenses. The good news is that I’m not struggling to pay the rent, but the bad news is that I never feel like I have enough time for my own work.

    So in answer to your question, I’d have to say that for me art school was not a good investment. I did learn a lot, but in retrospect I’d say I could have learned those things on my own or from other artists without going to school. My art degrees look nice on my resume, but they’ve never been of any help in making a living. If I had it to do over again I probably would go to law school. Lawyers make a lot more money than digital effects artists, and they work fewer hours. Ironically, I think I’d have more time to paint if I hadn’t gone to art school.

  10. Karl Zipser Says:


    I think you are taking the issue in a good direction with the concept of “total immersion” in a creative environment. Regardless of one’s experience in art school, or lack thereof, a continuing stimulating environment is essential — we seem to agree on this. I have been pleasantly surprised at how much inspiration I have found in the art “blogosphere.” However, I do not go so far as Jordan Grumet in saying it is a community. For me, an essential aspect of commitment is missing in an online “community,” as compared to an in real geographically/economically centered community. The Painting a Day movement seems to be an exception to this — there is an important element of commitment here. I think there is something we can learn from this movement, without having to join it.


    Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your viewpoint. I think you point out a key danger for artists today: people who are good at art tend to be good at other things as well, and it can be difficult to keep the focus on painting and drawing when there are other creative opportunities that are more lucrative. I think you make an excellent point that the artist today must discover a “survival strategy,” in order to stay in the business. That’s why I say that a successful artist is someone who is able to keep doing art with commitment and enthusiasm, even if they cannot live from that alone.

  11. Bob C. Says:

    Based on my own personal experiences, I think a person can learn more
    technique watching a 1-3 hour demonstration by an artist who is really
    good at doing that kind of thing than by reading an entire book, even a
    good one. This is not to say that reading about technique has no value,
    but it can’t compare with actually watching somebody do it.

    I didn’t go to art school, but I have taken a lot of classes at a
    variety of places, and I’ve almost always learned a lot from them. On
    the other hand, it is way more expensive than checking a book out of the
    library, and unless you’re looking for instruction in the mechanics of
    very specific techniques, the best way to learn will always be
    experience and experimentation.

  12. Karl Zipser Says:

    Max Doerner wrote, “learning to paint from a book is like learning to swim on a sofa.”

    And yet, I’ve learned a great deal from his book. Reading a good technique book is not like reading a normal book. It is more like living with that book, reading it over and over and over, experimenting and working yourself in the process. I’d love to watch Jan van Eyck paint, but he’s dead. Cennino Cennini’s book gets better every time I read it. So learning from a book is not ideal, but it can be valuable.

  13. David Says:

    But if you can swim on a sofa, you can swim anywhere :)

    Cennini’s book is great. Other excellent art books are Nicolaides’ The Natural Way to Draw and Albers’ The Interaction of Color.

    I think the best way to learn is to be open to all sources. Through your art practice, you come up with questions, some of which will lead you to books or instruction. Through reading and looking you discover more things to explore in your work. Probably not so different from science, wouldn’t you say?

  14. Karl Zipser Says:

    David, you made me laugh with that one.

    The books always lead me to questions that no one seems to know the answer to. That is what I find so exciting about being an artist. A lot of vision scientists are writing about art these days. I’m glad to be doing art, not just writing about it.

  15. Angela Ferreira Says:

    I will give you my opinion based on my life experience because I feel this is the way I have learnt mostly from.
    I am not a conventional person as a matter of fact, looking at my life, I did everything the other way around. I am studying an art degree after being working already as an artist, so you can pretty say I have my own pace of doing things.
    Most of my little successes I made them all on my own, research, hard work and talking to people.
    I decided to do a Fine Art course because painting at home and making my own little exhibitions was just not enough anymore and I wanted to get involved with the BIG ART SCENE around town.
    University gives the opportunity to impress and get the attention of the right people to become known.
    Well, technically so far I haven’t learned much but the full time interaction I am having with the other art students and concentrating on my work daily is brilliant! We learn a lot from each other.
    My tutor this year is an artist and gallery director so I am really thrilling to hear his opinions/feedback about my work.
    I have to say that is very hard though to make academic work under pressure to impress but you are giving this one opportunity and I want to make the most of it!

  16. Karl Zipser Says:

    The comments on this topic have been excellent. I’m going to try to bring the ideas together in a future post. But the various viewpoints expressed here are so different that it will take a little thinking about how to compose the next post on this topic. Thanks everyone, for contributing.

  17. Bob Says:

    Hi Karl, I think in the days of the old masters art and painting was very much like a science lab. I think they needed a lot of help to get work done. Grounding and mixing of paint, preparing canvas etc. A lot stuff that we just go to the art store and pickup now. So starting a painting and/or being a painter may have been a longer process then we can imagine now. My experience with some instructors is that they are trying to teach science. Art School when it goes beyond theory is helpful and can be great if you are lucky enough to learn from a great instructor.

  18. Rex Crockett Says:

    Dear Karl,

    First, thanks for posting this article to rec.arts.fine. I immediately clicked the link to your site and started checking it out, saving a bookmark for later examination. I like your comments so much I installed your feed into my email reader. You manage a gracious and urbane style while making sharp points. Refreshing.

    Second, I noticed you had a link to my site after I commented on the newsgroup. Thanks. I would like to return the favor and will do so as soon as I get to updating my site. That should occur in a week or so. As a working artist, I tend to do things in batches, but lately my projects have precluded too much time spent on the internet or my website.

    Third, rec.arts.fine tends to be an adversarial environment. I generally prefer a more civilized dialog, so the flippancy of my remarks there should not be construed as my regular, everyday tone. I consider art to be the best sort of human endeavor. Artists should therefore be helped and supported. I try to do so, but there are some who hurt in the name of help. Contemporary art education is a field that needs some grim reaping. The field needs to be cleared for a better crop. I often feel a sense of outrage at the false information that is passed off as wisdom.

    Fourth, I have at last a few minutes to write. It so happens I have another computer happily buzzing and whirring as it churns through a series of install disks for a new operating system, and sitting here watching a series progress meters is not my idea of fun, so I thought I’d do this little follow up.

    Before I begin, I should tell you that I only just saw the repost of my comments on rec.arts.fine, and I’d like to give a little context. It is not that I don’t have sympathy for artists who don’t sell. I know full well that art is as much about self discovery as it is about anything. It’s just that in the gallery scene, I meet a hell of a lot of people who blame their audience for their lack of sales.

    It is the responsibility of the artist to communicate in a way that causes the intended emotional effects on their prospective audience.

    It is never, never acceptable to blame the “plebeian tastes” of “_hoi poloi_” for a failure to communicate. If an artist wants to devote himself or herself to experimentation, fine, but you do not hear such people complaining about not selling, do you? So I addressed my harsh comment to those who blame their audience for what is, in fact, their own lack, and for them, I am decidedly unsympathetic.

    But I have another vector to this topic I wanted to share. One thing I notice in the talk about this subject is that the best argument people can make in favor of an art education is that it is an education, and education is good.

    Education IS good. I’d like to live in a world where everyone had the equivalent of a college education. I think everyone should have something like what is considered a good liberal arts education as a base for their specialization.

    It appears to me that there is, in addition to a failure in art education, a general failure in education. That is a strong statement, I know, but I come from a family that has a lot of long lived people. From these people, first hand, I learned that the average eighth grader in 1920 was probably better educated than the average high schooler today, and the average high schooler was better educated than the average completer of lower division college today. I think about how my grandfather taught me how to do complex calculations in one’s head, something they taught him grammar school. (It is not difficult. You basically work problems from the left side of the number. It’s a teachable skill.) All of the older generations knew at least a little Greek and more Latin. Far from being an archaic and useless thing, it gave them a grounding in not only grammar, but the ideals of democracy and enterprise. These are just a few examples I cite right off the top of my head as a backup for the observation that education is deteriorating. I am not alone in this. Anyone who follows education news is no stranger to this topic.

    Now, I just touch on that, but I bring it up to suggest that the inability of art education to create people who can survive as artists might be a reflection or a symptom of a greater ill.

    While I’m something of a bohemian these days, I used to work as a college administrator. I was on the inside. I heard and saw first hand the profit oriented cynicism that is the status quo. It’s a terrible thing. And the real shame is that the teachers who are a part of the system are by and large good, loving people. When I talk with them about educational reform, I always get a virtual cheer when I suggest that the way to save money in schools and provide a better education both would be to immediately fire all the administrators. Have the teachers run the schools. Set up a democracy. Involve both students and parents with voting rights. Things would change. There is hope.

    Last, as to how to reform art education _per se_, what I have seen really works is the old fashioned apprentice system. I had the good fortune to grow up with a mother who was herself an extraordinary artist, so had training and connections in the art world from an early age. I was lucky. I was a hot seller right out of high school. I even got an art school scholarship, but I threw it away when I saw how bad the teacher’s work was. (I made more money than them too.) Later, when I hit one of my artistic walls, I had the good fortune to stumble into another studio of another great artist who could show me how Rembrandt, Sargent, Rubens and Caravaggio really worked. I came to learn, but in exchange, I taught his younger students. He learned to paint in Italy from one who was trained in France while Bouguereau still alive. In college I learned how to get laid and do scientific math, but only through personal contacts with great artists was I able to further my artistic ambitions. The apprentice system worked for thousands of years. It wasn’t broken. It did not need fixing.

    All right then, my Solaris 10 is installed time to get back to the geek stuff.


    Rex Crockett

  19. Karl Zipser Says:

    Rex, thanks for this comment. I can’t do it justice now in a short reply, but I will be thinking about what you wrote.